By VeloNews Interactive, Copyright AFP2003
He has yet to fully capture the Kazakh public’s imagination but few doubtthat Alexander Vinokurov’s dogged pursuit of Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrichin this year’s Tour de France has given cycling a boost in his native ex-Sovietrepublic.Kazakhstan’s news media have paid only limited attention to the DeutscheTelekom rider’s rise to world class status, even after his victory in theTour of Switzerland earlier this year, his Olympic silver in 2000 and hislikely clinching of third place in the biggest race of all, the Tour deFrance.Exemplifying the lukewarm reaction is the weekly Vremya newspaper,which this week ignored the Tour de France in favor of front-page coverageof a contest of metal workers hauling cows and bulls on their backs inthe south of this vast Central Asian republic. But others were effusive.”Alexander has shown he can fight with the greatest monsters of worldcycling,” the Karavan weekly paper trumpeted ahead of the Tour deFrance’s close on July 27.
The Novoye Pokolenie weekly was more measured but praised Vinokurov’sattacking spirit in the mountains and winning of the tour’s ninth stage.”The main thing is that the Kazakh managed to make the greats feel nervous,”Novoye Pokolenie wrote.Hardly a prestige sport in the Soviet era, cycling in this mainly impoverishedcountry of 15 million people has only just begun to be associated withthe slick, hi-tech image of its West European counterpart.Gradually though it is gaining popularity, boosted not only by Vinokurov’ssuccess but also that of Andrei Kivilev, who came fourth in the Tour deFrance in 2001 but died in a crash during this year’s Paris-Nice race,which Vinokurov went on to win.Zaurbek Mizambekov, owner of the Merida cycle shop in an up-and-comingarea of the largest city Almaty, says that cycling is taking off particularlyin Kazakhstan’s mountainous south and that sales of bikes costing from230 dollars (200 euros) upwards have risen sharply in recent years.”In my childhood there were only five or six types of bicycle, but nowyounger people are spending real money on them,” Mizambekov said.“When the Soviet Union collapsed all they wanted was Western cars andclothes, but now people are more interested in their health, they’re drinkingless vodka and the mentality is improving,” Mizambekov told AFP.
Car drivers still have much to learn about consideration for otherusers of Kazakhstan’s deeply pitted roads, but Nikolai Proskurin, deputypresident of the country’s Cycling Sport Federation, says that Vinokurov’sachievements are a sign of things to come.”We can’t compare Kazakhstan with France, but our sportsmen are gainingexperience in Western Europe — interest is growing,” Proskurin told AFP.Vinkurov himself is convinced that Kazakhstan has more to contributeto Western cycling and highlights the dedication of Prime Minister DanialAkhmetov, a former racer who heads the Cycling Sport Federation and canstill be seen venturing around the capital Astana on two wheels.
“People keep phoning from Kazakhstan and saying that we’ve done somethingunbelievable — those who previously never watched cycling don’t want tomiss a stage,” Vinokurov told Novoye Pokolenie by telephone.